For some students, eating food taken from a Dumpster is an ethical decision.
The official term for Dumpster diving (if such a term truly exists) is “garbage picking”. It involves going through someone’s trash and removing items from it at its most basic, and really does not get much more complicated than that. In a setting like Goshen College, many students find themselves Dumpster diving. What are they searching for? The answer is simple and not at all surprising (for a college student).
While a Dumpster may seem a questionable source of food, stores frequently dispose of food that has not expired in order to leave a wide margin around possibly selling bad food.
Ruth Goingsworth, a student and occasional Dumpster diver said, “It’s usually not expired.” In addition, because of the cold temperatures at this time of year “it’s…the same as it was when they threw it out because it freezes so quickly.”
Even meat, which a seasoned Dumpster diver might avoid at other times of the year, is seen as safer in the winter.
What drives students to Dumpster dive is often a lot more complex than a simple desire to obtain free food. Many individuals feel it to be both an economical and ethical way to obtain food.
“There’s so much food waste in America,” said Goingsworth.
For many, the sheer quantity of food that is simply disposed of is startling. “Apparently (a group of Dumpster divers) got 40 loaves of bread,” Goingsworth said, remembering one particular occasion she had heard about.
A 2004 study by the University of Arizona in Tucson claims that “40 to 50 percent of all food (in the U.S.) ready for harvest never gets eaten”.
Dumpster diving is usually a fairly straight-forward process. Those involved will bike or drive (a car is more practical in winter) to the location, park at a discrete distance, take any food worth taking and leave.
Despite the ease of this, Dumpster diving is typically not a free-for-all. In fact, on being asked where they went to Dumpster dive, Herman Bubbert, a student, asked that such information not to be published.
Said Bubbert, “People don't want more people rooting around in their Dumpsters.” He said that those who Dumpster dive have a responsibility, that they “should be really respectful and always leave the Dumpster better than they found it.”
This then brings up another major point: the legality of Dumpster diving.
In terms of taking garbage from a private residence, the U.S. Supreme Court case of 1988, California vs. Greenwood, held that the Fourth Amendment, the prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure, does not apply to searching through trash. This however, is more in reference to obtaining evidence for court cases.
The major problem for Dumpster divers is generally with trespassing as opposed to taking the food itself.
But in general, it is local law and city ordinances that prevent Dumpster diving. In Goshen, the police department and store managers generally frown upon the practice.
From the perspective of the authorities, concerns seem mainly to be that people will make a mess at the Dumpster and that they may take food that has been thrown out for a reason.
It may have legitimately gone bad, or may have been invisibly contaminated by something else. Of course, when confronted by the police about Dumpster diving, running will certainly be breaking the law.
For Dumpster divers, however, taking food from Dumpsters does not challenge their sense of ethics.
They do not see themselves as looting or stealing and do not conduct themselves in such a way. Instead, many people simply see the tremendous amounts of food being wasted and choose to make use of it in a respectful, responsible manner.
Dumpster diving is not the only solution to the 40 to 50 percent of wasted food in the U.S., but for many it is still an ethically sound one, legal issues notwithstanding.
All sources have requested aliases to protect their identities.